Friday, March 2, 2012

Farewell to Smitty

Hebron, Maryland – It’s a small cemetery set next to an old country road on a flat coastal plain. That it sits in a town named Hebron is compelling -- amateur Biblical types know Hebron as a city near Jerusalem which was a burial ground for prophets.

The day is clear, a strong wind blows cold, four soldiers in dress blue uniforms attend to the flag-draped casket, a volley of shots are fired and Taps sounds. Standing among the elderly family friends are eight current and former soldiers saying farewell to Smitty.

Smitty’s military career spanned the various phases of conflict – worldwide communism, European uncertainty, and Islamic Jihad – to which America unflinchingly answered the call. He’d been one of the millions of American servicemen engaged in the Cold war – recall the twilight struggle? -- serving as an enlisted man in Berlin in the mid-1980s with a detachment intercepting and decoding Soviet and East German transmissions. The fight against Moscow seems like distant history – but it was the gripping challenge of three generations.

Smitty left the Army, went to college, and joined the National Guard, where I met him in the famed 629th Military Intelligence Battalion which alas, exists no more. The First Gulf War passed over us, but then the need for troops – “peacekeepers” -- in the shattered Balkan States necessitated a call-up to police Bosnia. Smitty stepped up to the plate and deployed, leaving his job.

Then came 9/11 and the Guard and Reserve underwent profound change. Tempos increased, the need for troops of all kinds – from infantry to intelligence to quartermasters to truck drivers to pilots to mechanics – became acute.

Even with the needs for Iraq and Afghanistan, there was again a need to assist Europe in controlling its own backyard. In 2004, the 629th sent a company of soldiers to Kosovo, still reeling from the 1999 conflict. Smitty went.

All told, I knew Smitty for 20 years. In the platoon and battalion, he was another squared-away NCO – they all were, frankly – who didn’t say much and got the job done, no matter what it was.

I was an E-4, trained at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, and I genuinely enjoyed my 14-years of reserve duty. There was the regularity of mustering with the battalion on the gym floor on Saturday and Sunday mornings; the routine of working on vehicles and gear and paperwork. And, of course, my outstanding work as volunteer for KP – diligent kitchen pogue helping to make lunch for 600 soldiers.

There was also the melancholy of Sunday afternoon -- getting the armory cleaned up and the gear stowed, the final muster of troops and the dismissal, the curious emotion of knowing it was back to a regular job, after a weekend in fatigues and boots.

I retired from the unit but Smitty hung in there and in 2007, deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq for a year, serving as an intelligence guy – an assignment mirrored in the Berlin service more than two decades prior. Smitty died two weeks ago of natural causes at too young of an age.

The Guard isn’t like the intensity of active duty service. But what the two components share is a military ethic. Remember, the military is a volunteer institution, built around cohesion and loyalty and strict attention to accomplishing a mission – values which sometimes seem to be absolute outliers in a nation choked with self-absorption and instant gratification.

At the church service prior to the cemetery, I was talking to one of the guys there – an NCO I’d known for years. He said to me, “You know, Nellie, I’ll be frank. Smitty didn’t really like me at all and I didn't really like him. We had some scenes – some real run-ins -- in Kosovo and at Camp Victory. But he respected me, and I respected him.”

So this guy, who has never got along with Smitty, drives 130 miles on a winter Saturday morning, in his dress blues, to pay his respects. When you contemplate the military bond, you can’t more profound than that. Let that be the farewell for Smitty.